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Peace Bridge revamp expected to be cheaper, less disruptive

FORT ERIE, Ont. – When the Peace Bridge Authority first aired its plan to replace the international span’s original 1927 deck with concrete over a modern steel grid, it proposed a $93 million project that would restrict traffic from three lanes to two over most of 21 months.

The idea, planners said, was to maintain peak summer traffic and close lanes only in winter to lessen delays for the 6 million vehicles annually crossing the bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie.

But when the authority asked prospective bidders to submit alternative proposals, American Bridge Co. responded with a less expensive $80 million plan featuring lane closures over only 16 months, beginning in fall 2017.

Now, Peace Bridge officials say they like the idea even if it means continuous lane closures – and are betting that they can keep traffic flowing even during the busy summer of 2018.

“If they have a better way to skin a cat, we’re going to take that under consideration,” Peace Bridge General Manager Ron Rienas said following Thursday’s meeting of the authority in Fort Erie.

Legal technicalities delayed an expected Thursday vote on the proposal until next week, but Rienas and authority Chairman Sam Hoyt say they anticipate no significant changes in the concept. They now plan to begin superstructure work this fall, which will not involve lane closures, and then block lanes for deck replacement from the fall of 2017 to early 2019.

While authority officials originally feared serious summer traffic jams with lanes reduced from three to two, the summer experiences of 2014 and 2015 when they had to deal with deck “blowouts” – or extreme potholes – provided valuable new lessons in how to move cars and trucks across the bridge. And if, as anticipated, customs officials on both sides of the span keep inspection booths fully staffed, Rienas said, the authority believes that traffic problems would be reduced to a minimum.

The authority also plans to seek other customs innovations and aggressively promote the use of NEXUS express lanes for preapproved travelers. “If we can get those things into place by the summer of 2018, that will really help us,” Rienas said.

Peace Bridge Operations Manager Thomas Boyle said that while the new approach will now mean one summer of lane closures, overall traffic restrictions would be reduced from 21 months to 16.

“There will not be this prolonged feeling by the public about this long, drawn-out construction period,” he said. “We find this appealing from a public perspective point of view. People won’t see it as a potential problem crossing.”

He added that preliminary work that has already widened the Buffalo end of the bridge and will widen the Fort Erie plaza will help improve traffic flow.

Still, Rienas said the bridge expects a 5 to 10 percent drop in traffic because of construction. He added that some traffic reduction has already been noted because of New York State’s work on the connecting Niagara Thruway.

Other construction companies submitted significantly higher bids, Boyle said, and authority staff recommended American Bridge, of Coraopolis, Pa., northwest of Pittsburgh, because of its lower cost estimate and construction approach. The authority will have an approximate cushion of $14 million to address potential cost overruns, he added.

“We will certainly be within budget,” he said. “We have no concerns.”

The company has extensive experience in New York State rehabilitation projects, he said, including the Tappan Zee, George Washington and Grand Island bridges. It also has worked with the steel grid technology planned for the Peace Bridge.

“ ‘Bridge’ is in their name,” Boyle said, “unlike the other contractors who primarily work on highways.”

The company can also immediately begin work on the Peace Bridge project without having to form partnerships with other companies, he added.